Why don’t we have solar-powered cars?

Other than the oft-dreamed-about flying car, solar-powered cars are one of the future vehicle technologies people most frequently fantasize about. But just as we don’t see our skyscape dotted with airborne cars and trucks, we don’t see our roads crowded with cars pulling their fuel directly from the sun as they go.

So what gives? We have solar panels that can pull energy from the sun, so why don’t we have solar-powered cars?

solar-powered cars

Well, actually, we do. As early as the 1970s we’ve had solar-powered cars, but there’s a catch — a few, actually. They’re ridiculously expensive to build; they run into fuel problems at night or during cloudy days; the interior of such a vehicle can easily overheat; and they’re aesthetically, um, interesting, due to their need to maximize surface area.

The closest we’ve had to a mass-produced solar car is the $30K Venturi Eclectic, a car that uses solar and wind to power itself. But even then, it has an electric battery that needs to be plugged in to supplement its onboard renewable power generators. On top of that, the car only has a range of 30 miles, and max speed of 30 mph — a Tesla this isn’t.

solar-powered cars

The Venturi Eclectic – Courtesy of Venturi

However, with the market introduction of solar paint and solar windows down the line, increases in efficiency, and decreases in cost, solar vehicles — real ones, not NEVs (neighborhood electric vehicles) like the Eclectic — could eventually be a reality. It’s entirely conceivable that one day we might be driving cars that charge as they drive, have the performance of a Tesla, and don’t cost over a million a pop. But that day is not today.

In the meantime, we should focus on transitioning away from cars that rely solely on oil, and move toward vehicles that can run on ethanol, methanol, natural gas, and electricity. Those vehicle exist today, and can have positive impacts on air quality, reduce CO2 emissions, and cut funding to terrorist groups and oppressive regimes around the globe.

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4 replies
  1. oobflyer
    oobflyer says:

    The energy produced, per square foot, is not enough to charge the batteries. For example a solar panel with 10 square feet will produce about 160W of energy. If you have a Nissan Leaf with a 30 KWh battery pack it would take 188 hours to charge.
    Maybe solar panels will achieve this kind of efficiency one day, but they will need to be 100 times more efficient than they are now.
    For now the solution is to store the energy generated from roof solar panels and use that to charge the EV at night.

  2. C.L. Washburn
    C.L. Washburn says:

    Ford produced a line of experimental solar cars a few years ago but I never saw anything about the results or intentions to produce them commercially. Are they continuing to work on that direction with the idea of producing them for consumers?

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